Posted in 1860s, 1930s, Historical fiction, Movies

GWTW at 80, Part VI (Historical accuracy)

Margaret Mitchell did a great deal of historical research for her novel, which didn’t stop after she found a publisher. She spent six months checking her facts during the editing process. Much of her research was conducted at Atlanta’s Carnegie Library, since razed to build the Atlanta–Fulton Public Library. Its replacement, in the same spot, has a permanent Margaret Mitchell exhibit on the third floor.

But just as with all hist-fic, there are some elements which were uncommon for the era. Unlike many historical novels and films today, though, they’re within the realm of plausibility, and other characters react to them as the anomalies they are, with the obvious notable exception of the romanticised Old South.

The Atlanta Historical Society has hosted many exhibits related to GWTW, among them 1994’s “Disputed Territories: Gone with the Wind and Southern Myths.” Subjects explored included “How true to life were the slaves in Gone with the Wind?” and “Was Scarlett a Lady?”

In many ways, Scarlett perfectly fits the mold of a Southern belle. She dresses the part, understands the importance of marriage, isn’t an intellectual heavyweight, steps up as a volunteer nurse (much as she hates the job), comports herself with dominance over her house slaves.

In other ways, however, Scarlett violates several codes of her culture. It was extremely unusual in that era for white women of means to work outside the home, let alone run a business like Scarlett’s sawmill. She also flouts the dress code with her low-cut gowns, and tries to resist Mammy making her stuff herself before the barbecue near the beginning of the story. Scarlett doesn’t think a normal appetite is unladylike.

In contrast, Melanie fully embodies the archetype of the Southern belle, though her life is much less interesting in consequence. Melanie doesn’t seek work outside the home apart from wartime nursing; she’s utterly devoted to her husband and child; she’s self-sacrificing to a fault; she’s extremely loyal and trusting. She naturally fits the mold, whereas Scarlett chafes against much of it.

Though ages aren’t mentioned in the film, there are several age-gap relationships in the book, and it’s obvious Scarlett is much younger than her second husband Frank even without the film specifying their ages. Frank originally fancied Scarlett’s sister Suellen, who’s about thirty years his junior. Scarlett’s parents are also 28 years apart, and Scarlett and Rhett are 16 and 33 when they meet.

Both Scarlett and Melanie marry at all of sixteen, early in the story. As I mentioned previously, it wasn’t common for 19th century women to marry that young, nor to much-older husbands. On average, first-time brides after Antiquity, with certain specific, notable exceptions (e.g., Medieval Eastern Europe, the U.S. pioneer West), were 18–25, usually near the upper end of that range. Their grooms were typically 1–6 years older, not old enough to be their dads.

In upper-class society, however, there was more precedent of girls marrying in their late teens, and to much-older men. Though this was still unusual, it was somewhat less unusual than in the non-wealthy world.

Even with that caveat, the age gaps in GWTW still weren’t typical! Whereas it might be relatively common to find, e.g., an 18-year-old marrying a 32-year-old, or a 21-year-old marrying a 30-year-old, it was highly unusual to find the massive gaps of GWTW.

Mourning practices in the Victorian era were strict and highly regulated. Scarlett flouts custom by dancing and attending a charity function while wearing widow’s weeds. Widows were expected to wear black for four years, often the rest of their lives. Young, attractive widows transitioning to colours like grey, lilac, and lavender “too soon” were assumed to be sexually promiscuous.

Those mourning relatives, friends, employees, and acquaintances were subject to strict rules too, albeit not as severe as those for widow(er)s. Melanie only has to wear black for six months after her brother Charles dies.

As mentioned in Part V, GWTW takes a very rosy-coloured view of the Old South, one atypical for both races. Though Margaret Mitchell grew up hearing stories of this vanished world and did a lot to further popularise that image through her novel, even she admitted it wasn’t common.

In a 1936 letter to poet Stephen Vincent Benet, she wrote, “It’s hard to make people understand that north Georgia wasn’t all white columns and singing darkies and magnolias.”

Like many people of her generation, however, she believed the Dunning School of Reconstruction, which falsified history in a very damaging way and supported the KKK. It was a very wise decision for the screenwriters to significantly tone down that aspect of the book!

Posted in 1860s, 1930s, Movies

GWTW at 80, Part II (General overview continued)

After the Intermission, we rejoin Scarlett in the final stages of the Civil War. She and her sisters Suellen and Carreen shoulder most of the burden of keeping Tara running, while Melanie is still very weakened from childbirth and spends most of her time abed.

Melanie wants to make herself useful, though, and gets out of bed more than once. On one of these occasions, a Union soldier breaks in searching for valuables. Scarlett shoots him with the gun Rhett gave her while they were fleeing Atlanta and relieves the corpse of his money and valuables. She and Melanie then dispose of the body, promising to tell no one what happened.

When the war ends, Tara becomes a way station for returning Confederate soldiers, much to Scarlett’s displeasure. One of them is Frank Kennedy, Suellen’s much-older suitor. (In the book, he’s about thirty years older.) Another soldier brings news of Ashley, who’s in a prison camp. Scarlett is thrilled when he arrives a few months later, but Mammy holds her back from rushing to embrace him.

Reconstruction brings high taxes which threaten Tara’s ownership. Scarlett begs Ashley to run away to Mexico with her, and he kisses her and admits he still loves her. However, he refuses to leave the sickly Melanie and their little boy Beau. Ashley also tells Scarlett she should love Tara more than anyone, and adds he plans to move his family to NYC to start over.

Scarlett, always prone to dramatics, pitches a fit which draws Melanie’s attention. To cover what really happened, Scarlett says she wants Melanie and Ashley to stay at Tara to help her, and Ashley, weak-willed as always, gives in without a battle.

Jonas Wilkerson, Tara’s former overseer, makes Scarlett an offer which she angrily refuses. Mr. O’Hara chases after him on horseback as he departs. Sadly, he’s killed when the horse falls while trying to jump a fence.

After the funeral, Scarlett turns to Rhett for help, believing he has more than enough money to save Tara. However, he’s now in jail in Atlanta, and will be hanged unless he turns over his Confederate gold. His prewar money is in London banks.

Mammy makes Scarlett a new dress from a green curtain for the occasion, and accompanies her so she won’t get into trouble in the big city or at this minimum security prison. Scarlett pretends to be Rhett’s sister.

Scarlett pretends life at Tara is swell, but Rhett knows it’s a ruse when he sees her work-worn hands. This doesn’t deter Scarlett at all; on the contrary, she shamelessly begs for money and even offers to become Rhett’s mistress. Rhett refuses, saying if he helped her, he’d get in a lot of trouble.

While walking through Atlanta afterwards, Scarlett encounters Frank Kennedy, now a successful businessman in the hardware and wood industry. He tells Scarlett he’s saving all his money to marry Suellen and bring her to Atlanta.

Never one to let an opportunity slip through her fingers, Scarlett lies Suellen is married to another man, and offers herself as a wife. Mammy is horrified, and Suellen is heartbroken, but Frank’s money saves Tara.

Scarlett becomes very wealthy from the lumber and hardware store she manages, though she refuses credit to impoverished neighbors. Thanks to the cake deals she makes with Northern businessmen, she’s able to buy a sawmill, and Tara gradually returns to its glory.

Scarlett also employs convicts and a former prison overseer. Ashley doesn’t like this at all, but his protests hold no sway.

Sometime later, Scarlett runs across Rhett, who’s now free and once again wealthy. He tells he she could’ve married him and shared in the riches if she’d waited, but Scarlett brushes him off and continues on to the sawmill.

Rhett warns her about travelling through a shantytown on the way there, full of Army deserters and dangerous criminals, but Scarlett insists the gun he gave her will protect her.

Scarlett gets attacked in the shantytown, before she has a chance to pull out the gun. Big Sam, a former slave at Tara, rescues her from an attempted rape.

Word gets around quickly, and the menfolk go to a supposed political meeting. During the evening, Rhett visits and says Ashley and Frank are in a vigilante group which is in danger of being busted by the Union Army. In the book, they’re in the KKK, and lynch the guys who attacked Scarlett.

Melanie gives Rhett the address, and later that night he returns with Ashley and Dr. Meade. They’re accompanied by Union soldiers, who were fed a fish story about a visit to Belle Watling’s brothel.

After the soldiers leave, Ashley reveals he’s wounded, and Rhett says Scarlett’s attackers are dead. Scarlett cares only for Ashley’s welfare, and is shocked back into reality when Rhett says Frank is lying dead in the road.

Several days later, Rhett visits again and proposes to Scarlett. She says she’ll always love only Ashley, but that she’ll marry Rhett for his money. Rhett doesn’t care about the lack of love, since they’re two of a kind. They honeymoon in New Orleans, and Tara is restored to its former splendor after their return. Rhett also buys a mansion in Atlanta.

Rhett and Scarlett soon have a daughter, Bonnie Blue, whom Rhett absolutely dotes on. Scarlett, meanwhile, wants no more children and declares she’ll never sleep with Rhett again. Rhett threatens divorce, but relents for the sake of avoiding scandal.

In 1871, Scarlett and Ashley are caught in an embrace, which sets in motion a disastrous, snowballing series of events threatening Scarlett and Rhett’s already shaky marriage. By the time Scarlett realises Rhett is the only man for her, it might be too late to salvage their relationship.

Posted in 1860s, 1930s, Movies, U.S. Civil War

GWTW at 80, Part I (General overview)

One of the greatest films of the greatest year of cinematic history premièred near the very end, 15 December 1939, at Loew’s Grand Theatre in Atlanta. This epic screen adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s classic sweeping saga of the Old South is one of those films like The Wizard of Oz, so well-known it feels almost pointless to bother giving a recap. Has anyone not seen GWTW at least once?!

On the eve of the Civil War, pretty, popular Southern belle Katie Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) lives the life of Riley on her family’s plantation Tara in Clayton County, Georgia. The talk of impending war bores Scarlett terribly, and she abandons her suitors to talk with her father in the fields.

Mr. O’Hara delivers a devastating piece of news—there’s a barbecue coming up at nearby Twelve Oaks to celebrate the engagement of cousins Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) and Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland). Though many men are competing for her hand, Scarlett only has eyes for the milquetoast Ashley, and is determined to stop this marriage from happening.

On the day of the barbecue, Scarlett insists on wearing a dress with a plunging neckline and refuses to eat the tray of food her Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) gives her. “Respectable” women weren’t allowed to demonstrate real appetites, esp. not in front of men. Thus, Scarlett isn’t supposed to eat anything at the barbecue and “ruin” her figure. (Little wonder so many girls and women have eating disorders!)

Scarlett wins the fight about the dress, but Mammy still makes her eat the food to ruin her appetite and remain unnaturally thin.

At the barbecue, Scarlett flirts with all the single gentlemen, hoping to make Ashley jealous. Then, during the ladies’ nap, Scarlett sneaks away to meet Ashley in the parlour. Her attempts to turn Ashley’s head and get him to jilt Melanie are all in vain.

There’s a long tradition of marriages between Ashley and Melanie’s families, since they’re so well-educated, intellectual, and serious-minded. While Scarlett lives for social life and superficial things, Ashley and Melanie both enjoy discussing ideas, debating politics, and reading great literature.

Though Ashley rebuffs Scarlett’s advances, this doesn’t deter her at all; on the contrary, it makes her even more determined to win his love. Ashley’s wishy-washiness doesn’t help matters, since he admits he’s attracted to Scarlett and kind of leaves the door open for future stolen moments. Scarlett declares she’ll hate him forever, but actions speak louder than words.

Also attending the barbecue is black sheep Charlestonian Captain Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who’s immediately drawn to Scarlett. He witnessed the row between her and Ashley, and doesn’t understand what such a sassy, feisty woman sees in a guy like that.

The barbecue goes haywire when news of the declaration of war breaks, and all the young men rush off to enlist. Hoping to make Ashley jealous, Scarlett impulsively decides to marry Melanie’s brother Charles. Shortly before this, Charles and Rhett got into a heated argument when Rhett defied popular opinion to declare the North is better-equipped for victory.

Charles was gunning for a duel, but Rhett left the room to diffuse the situation. Though Charles thought Rhett a coward, Ashley told him Rhett is a much better shot and would’ve killed him.

Several months later, Scarlett becomes a widow when Charles dies of the measles (one of those lovely diseases anti-vaxxers giggle off as no big deal). Her mother suggests she move to Atlanta to break her melancholy (which of course isn’t caused by Charles’s death). Scarlett will live with Melanie and Melanie’s spinster aunt Pittypat.

Scarlett eagerly accepts this offer, hoping it’ll provide a chance to see Ashley again.

Scarlett attracts scandal when she attends a fundraiser in 1862 and dares to dance instead of demurely standing off to the side in her widow’s weeds. One of the few people at the charity event who doesn’t disapprove of her behaviour is Rhett, now making a fortune as an arms smuggler.

When Melanie donates her wedding ring to the war effort, Scarlett follows suit. Melanie, always seeing the best in people and unaware of untoward motivations, applauds this noble sacrifice. A dance auction is then held, and Rhett chooses Scarlett as his partner when he wins.

As they dance, Rhett tells Scarlett he wants her to someday say she loves him, and she says that’ll never happen.

By 1863, things aren’t going so well on the Atlanta homefront, and Scarlett and Melanie are forced into nursing work. Scarlett has to shoulder the burden of most of it, since Melanie, now pregnant after a furlough visit from Ashley, isn’t in the best of health.

Aunt Pittypat soon leaves to avoid the constant sound of artillery, compelling Scarlett into the role of mistress of the house. Her only help, slave Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), isn’t much help at all, esp. when Melanie goes into labour.

As Atlanta burns, the ladies escape back to Tara, with help from Rhett, the only person Scarlett knows who can get them to safety. Once they’re outside city limits, Rhett announces his plans to enlist and leaves them to journey the rest of the way alone.

Rhett professes his love before he leaves, which greatly angers Scarlett.

Their harrowing journey ends at a plundered, devastated Tara and a burnt Twelve Oaks. Even worse, Scarlett’s dad has gone half-mad since the recent death of his wife, and only two slaves are left, Mammy and Pork. All the other servants and slaves ran away or joined the Union Army.

Part I ends as Scarlett stands in the desolated fields, famously swearing, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”

To be continued.

Posted in 1860s, 1990s, Antagonists, Writing

An important turning-point in my writing of antagonists

Probably sometime in the spring of ’98, towards the end of the Civil War unit in my American History class, our teacher announced we were going to have a mock funeral for Pres. Lincoln. She was going to pass around a bowl or hat with slips of paper, and we’d have to deliver a speech from the POV of whomever we drew.

I sat on the front left-hand side of the room, near the door, so I drew first. Of all the names in that container to draw from, I ended up with the one name probably no one wants to draw.

Who wants to play the assassin? Particularly when that person assassinated one of the most venerated people in American history?

I was loath to give my name up when the teacher was asking us who drew whom. When it finally came out that I’d drawn Booth, the teacher’s body language and involuntary little noise made her own reaction obvious.

In short, she knew what kinds of interests I had, my writing style, how advanced I was in my study of history, and how I wasn’t exactly a typical teen.

Don’t ask how obsessed I used to be with Pres. Lincoln and his sons Willie and Tad. He’s still one of my favoritest presidents and people in American history, though I don’t think he was a demigod who did no wrong ever.

Then I began researching my eulogy, written in Booth’s POV. While I didn’t start seeing him as an unfairly vilified hero, I did gain a deeper understanding of his motivations, background, and beliefs. I even used some language I’d never use myself, like an anti-Polish epithet, in the interest of authentically capturing his voice and the types of things he honestly would’ve said.

The day of the mock funeral, I dressed in my father’s old wedding suit, and may have worn a man’s hat as well. It’s so fun wearing men’s suits. Someday I hope to have a men’s-style suit tailored for a woman’s body. There are a few companies specializing in such clothes.

One of the reasons I love Halloween and Purim so much is because, when you really think about it, all clothing, makeup, and accessories are essentially drag, a costume, an identity you choose to put on to the world. It’s fun to play with an alternate identity a few times a year.

I really, really got into my portrayal of Booth. I had to resist the urge to start interacting with other people in character, or to say something like, “If anyone moves, Mary Todd gets it!”

The teacher said I made a really strong case for Booth. I imagine she may have been surprised I got so into character, both in the written and oral speech. So many other people would’ve taken the easy way out by casting him as a one-dimensionally evil villain who acted out of a vacuum.

This carried through into the way I write my antagonists, like Boris Aleksandrovich Malenkov, Mr. Seward, Misha Godunov, Anastasiya Voroshilova, and Mrs. Troy. All these characters truly believe they’re in the right, and started down that path for a reason. The sympathetic characters are the ones who seem misguided to them.

Even minor or secondary antagonists or villains I’ve created aren’t one-dimensionally evil and cartoonish. They have distinguishing features, and are written like real people.

Antagonists like Urma Smart or Mrs. Green, whose entire purpose is to be antagonistic and unsympathetic, exist to make people’s lives very, very miserable. But there’s still a general concept of the background and motivations which led them to those paths. They also bring a lot of great dark comedy.

Antagonists are fun to write! When the first book you ever read, at three years old, is the adult, uncensored edition of Grimms’ Fairytales, you know early on real life isn’t flowers, puppies, rainbows, and glitter.

As much as I enjoy well-deserved happy endings, I’m naturally drawn to the dark, macabre side of writing.

Posted in 1920s, Movies, Silent film

The General at 90, Part II (Behind the scenes)

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The General was based upon a true story, William Pittenger’s 1863 memoir The Great Locomotive Chase. Though Mr. Pittenger (one of the first Medal of Honor recipients) was a Union, not Confederate, soldier, the source material concerned a military raid in the South. It began 12 April 1862, when Union Army volunteers hijacked a train and drove it to Chattanooga. Along the way, they severely damaged the Western & Atlantic Railroad line.

Since the Union forces had cut telegraph wires, it was impossible to send warnings. However, the Confederates eventually captured them. Some were executed as spies, while others escaped. The U.S. Congress gave the Medal of Honor to some of the raiders, though they couldn’t award leader James J. Andrews, since he was a civilian and not in the military.

Obviously, I understand some Southerners wouldn’t consider these guys heroes!

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Though the book was written from the Northern POV, Buster didn’t think the audience would accept Confederates as villains, and switched the story’s perspective. The trend in that era to portray the South as underdogs, heroes, victims, etc., may have been due to retrospective romanticizing of “the lost cause,” even among writers and filmmakers who weren’t Southern themselves.

I’m a Northerner myself, but I don’t have any problem with the other side being portrayed sympathetically, just as I don’t have any problem with a positive portrayal of, e.g., a normal family in Nazi Germany. It can be done well, so long as there’s no historical revisionism or sugarcoating of negative aspects of history. We’re all humans, even if some humans have ended up on the losing side of wars.

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Buster filmed in Central Oregon, where there were old-fashioned railroads perfect for the treatment. He’d tried to rent the real-life General, but his request was denied. The owners didn’t want it used in a comedy. In its place, however, Buster bought two vintage Civil War trains from the Oregon, Pacific & Eastern Railway, and bought a third train in Eugene, Oregon, to depict The Texas.

Producer Joseph Schenk (Buster’s brother-in-law at the time) allotted a $400,000 budget. Buster worked on the script for weeks, and grew his hair long for an authentic period feel. When the cast and crew arrived in Oregon, they had 18 freight cars full of Civil War-era stagecoaches, cannons, passenger cars, wagons, houses, and laborers. Regular train service ceased during filming, and 1,500 locals were hired as extras.

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Film production being what it is, the budget began ballooning. Buster built real dams to change the depth of rivers, and also built bridges. There were also a number of on-set accidents adding to the swelling budget, among them Buster (who did all his own stunts) being knocked unconscious.

Other accidents included fires from the train’s engine spreading to farmers’ haystacks (costing $25 per stack) and forests; a train wheel running over a brakeman’s foot and resulting in a $2,900 lawsuit; and an assistant director getting shot in the face with a black cartridge.

It was reported that the budget had grown to between $500,000 and a million dollars. Schenk was quite upset at Buster for spending so much money.

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Between three to four thousand residents of the town of Cottage Grove turned out to watch the climactic train wreck scene, which cost $42,000 and is said to be the most expensive single shot in the history of silent cinema. Among the locals in attendance were 500 extras from the Oregon National Guard. Shooting began four hours late, used six cameras, and required several long runs.

The wreckage was left in the river, and was a minor tourist attraction until 1944–45, when it was salvaged for scrap metal for the war effort.

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Buster and his company were forced to return to Los Angeles on 6 August 1926, due to excessive smoke left in the air after yet another fire, which broke out during a fight scene. This fire cost $50,000. In late August, heavy rains cleared the air, and they returned.

Finally, on 18 September, shooting wrapped. Buster had accrued 200,000 feet of film, and planned a late December release after the long editing process.